Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle is an exploration of the forces that produced online culture wars. It comes across as partly a study of social dynamics within these spheres, as well as a historical tracing of how ideologies on the far-right came to be, and to a lesser extent, the radical “identitarian” left. Nagle provides a series of characterizations, but offers little in the way of a prescription as to what to do with such reactivity. She also does not discuss how media infrastructures enable these groups in full detail. Rather, she portrays the emotive and psychological forces driving behavior by fringe groups on the /pol board of 4Chan, the Manosphere, and how the narratives driving these groups led to the rise of important figures in the alt-right.
Nagle argues that in the early 2010’s, there was a great deal of optimism surrounding a “leaderless” web, where anti-capitalist and anti-state movements from Occupy to the Arab Spring produced networks of hacktivists, who oftentimes aligned with the values of the mainstream left. People celebrated the work of Anonymous in providing both public spectacle as well as real investigatory work related to corporate and state abuse, as well as organizing power for progressive organizations. However, Nagle argues that this same “leaderless” conceptualization, though “fetishized” by progressives became a place where the right was successful.
Nagle goes on to characterize the transgressive roots of 4chan and its subforums, and spends a significant amount of time trying to characterize the ideological roots of communication on boards like /b and /pol. She depicts a sphere that has been described as the “cesspool of the internet” full of graphic and taboo imagery of violence, sexual imagery and the grotesque. She characterizes the cruelty and humor associated with 4chan in the way of Batkhin’s carnival laughter, where the humor espoused in these internet spaces is one that laughs at the structures constituting normal life, with some element of cruelty embedded in it. Nagle sketches a portrait of the disaffected and NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) men that populate these online spaces, as arbitrary, socially inept, unwilling or unable to assimilate into “normal society.” She draws on the sensibilities of the Surrealists, writers like Marquis de Sade, and the nihilism portrayed in movies like Fight Club and American Psycho. She discusses how a disregard for the moral authority of society, and consequently, oftentimes the feelings and humanity of women and minorities. Though the memes, graphic productions and posts made of ironic, self-referential humor are by their nature buried in layers of meaning and non-meaning, Nagle describes how they manifest IRL. Violence, school shootings, suicide, assault and more are encouraged on these forums, and has led to these outcomes in the real world.
We then see how such an ideology, hinged on insecurity, transgressiveness and an extreme hostility towards moral authority ends up being weaponized. Nagle uses Gamergate to discuss how the transgressive, very online men of 4chan and other spaces ended up using their organizing ability to dox and harass women, while also propelling certain figureheads in the alt-right to a kind of celebrity.
Per Nagle, these sentiments foment into a new culture war, similar to the one of the 1990’s, where conservatives reacted to the mid-century gains of women and minorities. While figureheads like Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, Milo Yiannopoulos and even the anonymous posters on r/redpill or /pol have described their opinions on the same adversarial terms, this culture war is different. It does not seek to preserve institutions like the church, conservative moral authority, or the notion of America that once existed. Rather, the fringe or alt-right seeks to disrupt moral orders they find constraining at any cost, even if condemned as crass or reprehensible. Nagle is careful to present the various movements and sub-movements within a loosely defined collective of alt-right as factional and heterogeneous; posters on Daily Stormer are not equivalent to casual readers of Breitbart or teenagers ironically posting sexist or racist memes on /b. She instead seeks to characterize the venomous and playful kind of trangressitivity that tends to unite all of these fragmented groups, which justify cruelty and radical belief in the service of rejecting mainstream moral authorities.
Nagle also describes the rhetoric of what she and other critics like Mark Fisher brand as the “identitarian left” which in Nagle’s view, espouses an ideology of performativity based on the accumulation of virtue as currency. Specifically, she describes an online sphere where the call-out of call-out culture was worth some degree of social capital in these spaces, perhaps even more so than the actual substance of the objection. She describes how such a sphere alienated older leftists, produced a culture of carefully policed language, and eventually percolated into campus spaces. This culture is easily exploited, per Nagle, by the theaterics of alt-right celebrities like Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern and more. Nagle spends less time covering the psychologies and history of this specific brand of progressivism; rather, she instead chooses to discuss this sphere of discourse as a foil or motivating force for alt-right groups.
As much as I found this book to be interesting, I’m not sure if there are any key takeaways about how to solve the problem, either in the psychology of young people who become reactionaries, or in preventing reactionary discourse from ending up in mainstream discourse. The book provides a good field guide, especially in regards to the right, but is not necessarily process-oriented in its explanations. It also provides little in the way of class critique as it relates to the rise of reactionary, cultural hostility between different groups of people, and also spends much less time discussing race and race relations in the U.S. and Europe as it does gender.